I Knew Her Well (Blu-ray Review)29 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Stars Stefania Sandrelli, Mario Adorf, Jean-Claude Brialy.
In a coincidence of distribution that’s likely too calculated actually to be one, Antonio Petrangeli’s vastly underseen Italian import from half-a-century ago is only now just getting a U.S. theatrical premiere in a handful of arthouses, just as it comes to home viewers in a classy Criterion release. I Knew Her Well is enough of a discovery to make one wonder how many other submerged treasures there are out there from the ’60s (and not just from Italy), though it ought to be noted that reviews for the picture were good at the time and that it also appeared on a list of “100 Italian Films To Be Saved” unspooled at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Can lead Stefania Sandrelli really have been just 19 when she made this? And, to further emphasize the time gap, can she now have a slew of real-life grandchildren? Yes and yes.
The one major rap here may be the familiarity of the movie’s premise, though it was — and, make no mistake, still is — overwhelmingly true to the entertainment racket. Knew Her is about someone without too much ammo at her disposal trying to exploit the one commodity she has (looks) to survive in a pool of male sharks, though most of the latter are D-listers (more like guppies with sharp teeth). People have compared this movie to 1960’s groundbreaking La Dolce Vita in its portrayal of glittery nightlife populated by sundry hangers-on. But despite its different milieu and outcome, I also thought of Darling, which came out the same year as Knew Her — though, yes, Julie Christie’s character assimilates with a higher caliber of creeps than anything you see here (there’s one brief scene in a bowling alley, for instance, which is the kind of un-Mod place John Schlesinger’s instant time capsule never takes us).
Nor is Christie’s amoral Brit bed-hopper very sweet, which is how the current-day Sandrelli describes the character she’s playing (named Adriana) in a Criterion bonus interview. Adiana has come from nothing, and the scene where she goes back home to the farm to visit her ground-down parents after a long time gap is at least as emotionally brutal as the one where Robert Redford’s skiing hopeful journeys back to small-town Colorado to see his unloving father in Downhill Racer (another recent Criterion release). Turns out that there was another sister who escaped — and then died — but no one could tell Adriana because no one knew her address.
Well, she is restless. Though the set-up scenes engross and move at a good clip, it takes us a long time to figure out where the movie is going because Adriana changes employment even more than she changes men. None of these jobs are much, and we can see from the opening scene alone that she isn’t making much of her tenure at a hairdresser shop when a nearby beach enables her bikinied self to soak up some daily rays. Ushering at a cinema is another gig, though the jobs she hopes offer promise are on the periphery of show biz, such as modeling for a filmed commercial that will only allow viewers to see her boots. If you asked her what her “plan” is, you’d probably get a blank stare. But again, she’s sweet and uncalculating to a fault, happily canceling an appointment that might even do her some professional good to care for a neighbor’s baby.
As for men, she might have done as well on the farm. Her poverty row agent (Nino Manfredi) is tad overly anxious to get his cut from getting her into a movie magazine (an article placement she must pay for herself). And one of her more initially promising squeezes (Jean-Claude Brialy) ducks out on her at a resort — whereupon she must cover the tab with a bracelet he gave her (which, turns out, was stolen). It is amid another dalliance (this guy a little higher class) where one of the most piercing in a litany of insults she’s all but cheerfully taken from everyone finally gets to her. At this point, the movie kind of pivots from being, well, not quite a comedy, but a drama with a breezy tone. Suddenly, the breeze is gone.
Casting echoes abound here. Sandrelli was about five years away from appearing in what became her most famous role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, while Brialy would become better known to U.S. audiences in Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee not long after that. Franco Nero shows up as the world’s best-looking garage attendant a couple years before he played Lancelot in Joshua Logan’s critically/commercially disastrous movie of Camelot, and there’s also Karin Dor as a Sandrelli friend — about four years before her death scene proved to be the most memorable thing about Hitchcock’s Topaz. The most memorable of the supporting players is Ugo Tognazzi as a down-on-his-luck actor who nearly kills himself offering tap-dancing amusement at a high roller’s party, a scene that everyone who’s currently reviewing this movie takes the time to praise as a standout. He’s the one person whose humiliation here may rival Adriana’s; some pistol-happy cowboy out of The Great Train Robbery might just well be making a tenderfoot “dance.”
Extras include a good background-ing essay by journalist/author Alexander Stille about the societal changes in ’60s Italy that led to a cinematic re-emphasis from the rural to the metropolitan; the Sandrelli interview plus her original screen test; and an interview with scholar Luca Barattoni on the career of writer/director Pietrangeli (normally a comedy specialist) who would die four years later in a drowning accident before he got out of his 40s. The 4K spiff-up is so easy on the eye that we’re again reminded of Criterion’s consistent prowess at rendering black-and-white, which has by now become a specialized skill, sad to say.